Experience and Differentiation

I. Prologue

Consider: a state of enlightenment, of simple awareness. This is where we begin.

II. Undifferentiated Experience

The path of meditation is a path of non-attachment to a world of sensation. The meditative practice is one in which the mind is brought to stillness, and thoughts, feelings, and sensations are noticed but not entertained.

For most people, if not all, the arc of meditation practice has directionality: they begin with cluttered minds, overwhelmed by the endless chatter of thoughts, feelings, and sensations which characterize our waking moments. They seek mindfulness practice as a way to gain control over their experience. Over many hours, they learn — often through breath — to ignore distractions and focus their awareness to a single undifferentiated point. This is seen as a form of strengthening. As the venerable Ajahn Chah once said:

You exercise the body by moving it around. You exercise the mind by bringing it to stillness.

Let’s call this a state of “undifferentiated experience”.

For many, maintaining this single point of awareness is a blissful experience. It has many names: enlightenment, nirvana. A state worth attaining.

III. Reversing the Arc

The common understanding is that one moves from chaos to stillness. When you sit in meditation, you work to clear your mind.

Now, what if this process were reversed? What if instead of working to clear your mind, you instead worked to invent it?

It must begin with a first separation. At some point, there must be a first splitting of unified awareness. This is self-evidently true.

And if there is a splitting, there must be a direction along which to split. A separation is a choice about what and how to value.

A first separation. Then a second. A third. And so on. Countless tiny distinctions, more and more fine-grained, spiraling out recursively, creating your world. The number of possible dimensions with which to differentiate experience is unbounded.


IV. Origins

A common creation myth: in the beginning, there was a void. Then, some power caused a world to exist, filling the void. Nothing, and then something. A big bang.

The Kabbalists tell a different story. For them, the first state was one of endless divine presence. An infinite unity. Pure awareness. And then, a contraction. In Hebrew, this is known as צמצום (tsimtsum). The endless whole caused itself to be divided, and in that division created space for the world to exist.

Information theory is the study of the reduction of uncertainty via communication. The most basic unit of communication is the bit, which takes on the values of 0 and 1. A single bit answers the most basic question: something, or nothing?

Now consider: which came first?

Did we begin with 0, with absence, and then created 1, presence, from nothing? Or did we start with 1, presence, and then create absence, 0, through a contraction?

Something to think about.

V. Unity

The universe is characterized by entropy. Things fall apart. It naturally leads one to ask: why is there anything at all?

In his 1991 philosophical novel Lila, Robert Pirsig explores this question. In his account, there are two fundamental forces at work. First is entropy, the destructive force, pulling things apart. The second, more mysterious by far, is the constructive force. It can be seen in the first urging that brought elements together into molecules. It can be seen in long, steady push for greater human rights across the world. It can be seen in the artist driven by their art. It is a life force, a sensitivity, an awareness, constantly probing.

Now, what if our personal awareness is nothing more than a facet of the total awareness? What if we are all fragments through which the total awareness shines? What if we are the instrument through which the fundamental awareness acts in the world?

What if?

Then we could conclude that we are each expressions, of a deeper truth, and that our differences are simply distortions in that expression, due to our uniqueness of mind and body.

We could say that within us lies perfection.

VI. Separation

What are these “separations”? In a sense they are axes, or dimensions, of value.

Up or down. Left or right. More or less. Good or bad.

A separation has three parts: two extremes, and the space in between.

Process and outcome. Conservative and progressive. Freedom and security. Individual and collective. Feminine and Masculine.

The space in between may be paradoxical. This makes sense, if you see paradox as the side-effect of trying to understand something that is beyond comprehension.

Even a desire is a separation: of the self and the thing desired.

VII. Solipsism and Value

We begin as pure, undifferentiated awareness. The optimal state. Any separation, then, is movement away from this ideal.

It seems reasonable, then, to say that there should be as little separation as possible. Each differentiation should be made with care, only as necessary (necessary for what?).

Each separation represents a choice, a choice of what to value. How do you decide?


Beginning with undifferentiated awareness, the first separation must necessarily be an intuitive one. How could it be otherwise? In a state of singular awareness, there can be no outside information, as it is separation that allows for measurement. To even create a differentiated awareness capable of perceiving, processing, and deciding, foundational separations must first be made. In that first separation, you are alone.

If you believe that we are all expressions of a greater awareness, then the state of undifferentiated experience is the closest you come to this awareness. Given that, the intuitive first separation can be seen as the moment where this awareness is most strong in you.

Therein lies beauty. If you are truly building your world, you can choose the experience of the moment, each moment. If you let yourself be guided by intuitive awareness, you can create powerful and effective moments. In this way, mindful and deliberate differentiation of experience allows you to bring the greater awareness — the life force — through you and into the world.

Here also may lie the secret to creative life: to let these separations emerge from within, rather than being imposed from without. When you let your separations, your values, to be imposed from the outside, then your life becomes a stale reiteration of the lives of others. When these values emerge from within, your life is vibrant and dynamic: an expression of a deeper awareness.

VIII. Measurement

To measure is to assess value along some dimension. A prerequisite of measurement, then, is separation. Your separation then determines the nature of your measurements. In a world so captivated by measurements, these choices are not inconsequential.

IX. Reunification

How can we know the quality of our separations?

By the impact of their rejoining.

Consider the child, sent off to school. There is a separation from the family, a breaking of togetherness. The child goes off and learns and grows. Often, the child returns, and is able to integrate their new experiences into the family. The family grows.

Consider strength training. We stretch and work our muscles, causing them to tear. In their healing, they grow stronger.

Consider the democratic process. We have parties, divided in their values. Each represents a set of values. None are wholly right, none are wholly wrong. Through their interaction and eventual compromise, the society can advance.

Consider two people in love. Some believe that true love reveals a deep connection between the couple, perhaps even that they were once a whole. Psychiatrist Brian Weiss has spent years investigating this: he believes that people are deeply linked even across lifetimes. If you believe this, you may ask yourself why the two were ever separated. It seems somewhat cruel. Perhaps it is because in their discovery of each other and the mixing of their experiences, a powerful love is brought out into the world.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes a universal myth, one constant across time and across cultures. In this myth, the hero is separated from his or her normal world and cast into danger. The hero must fight and overcome obstacles, and grow in knowledge and powers. Ultimately, the hero returns home, bringing the gifts of that experience back to the community.

Separation, reunification, growth.

X. Epilogue

It may be that differentiation and reunification is a fundamental process in our universe and a primary source of creation.



Penny for your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s